Book Review: Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind

Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind
Soul of the Fire, by Terry Goodkind

I enjoyed the exercise in world building that this book seems to represent. The author laid out the history of Anderith and then used that foundation to give us a story about political intrigue and domination.

I also enjoyed how things played out at the end, though I’m not sure it made much sense. The common people would be the ones to suffer the most, while the elites who manipulated them in the first place would likely escape retribution, like Dalton. So, could that really satisfy Richard’s desire for vengeance? It does make his actions seem more juvenile. What he’s doing at the end of the story is pretty juvenile too. “They don’t like me so I’m going home!” Isn’t this guy supposed to be Lord Rahl? Wouldn’t his past experiences have hardened him up and made a man out of him by this point? Are his actions believable?

I feel like Goodkind spends a lot of time building new characters up and developing them in really creative ways, only to have them meet their ends in extremely anti-climactic situations that felt rushed and left me wondering what the point of learning about them was in the first place.

That rushed feeling permeates the last 60 pages or so of the book. One moment everything is fine, and then suddenly the enemy is there and everything quickly wraps up in catastrophe. It doesn’t feel measured. It doesn’t feel like good storytelling. It feels like the author put too much time into the build-up and then realized he only had 50 pages to find some sort of conclusion. The ending was choppy and unsatisfying. Goodkind also puts too much weight on weak storylines. The prime example is using Franka’s situation at the end of the book to explain Dalton’s change of heart, but for that to be believable Dalton’s relationship with Franka should have been more deeply examined.

The story could have been better if Goodkind had spent less time detailing characters and a culture that were disposable and had spent more time developing the main characters instead. Throughout the story, all of the main characters fail to work together. The actions they take aren’t believable given their situations. Kahlan doubting Richard and the mud people elder about the chicken is the most glaring example. Why would they lie about it, and if it had turned out to be untrue, so what? They’d have checked and maybe killed a few chickens and then they could have settled things. Instead, she gets portrayed as a doubting, whining bitch that slows down story progression, which isn’t fair to her considering who she is supposed to be. Richard has his turn to be an idiot when he doesn’t trust Kahlan’s opinion later on in the story.

The story just feels like a wasted opportunity, or like filler material.

Shake Shack and Barnes & Noble on 86th Street

Shackburger, Fries, Peanut Butter Shake and Root Beer. Looks good, doesn't it?
Shackburger, Fries, Peanut Butter Shake and Root Beer. Looks good, doesn’t it?

After putting off going to the Shake Shack for a … well, a few years, we finally made the trip. We never went before, because it just wasn’t convenient. There was never one near where we lived. I’m still surprised that they don’t have a location near Union Square. I’d always heard good things about the place, though, so when we decided to take a trip to the Met, I suggested we eat at the Shake Shack a few blocks away on 86th street between 3rd Ave and Lexington.

I was a little surprised by the prices, but after we finished eating, we felt like it was worth it. The fries really weren’t anything special, but the burger and shake were exceptional. I had a Shackburger and my wife had the portobello mushroom burger. She said that was also delicious. I was a little worried about the “special sauce” on the burger, but it really complemented the taste. The peanut butter shake was thick and tasty, but it’s heavy so we split a small. The best part is that it tasted real. The peanut butter shake especially, but all of the food as a whole. Maybe not the fries. But, in general, it felt like I was at a family barbecue eating a real burger off the grill.

After eating, we went into the Barnes & Noble next door to take a look around. We’re both suckers for book stores. Even if we don’t plan on buying anything, we love to browse. We were surprised by how big the place is. It’s all underground in two basement levels. We never quite managed to leave and before we realized it, it was 8 pm and we were ready to head home. I wound up taking pictures of some book covers from the current events section to pick up later, when (or if) I ever get through the books I already have lined up to read. 4 years of college really put a dent in my pleasure reading.

The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty: Why Nations Fail
The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty: Why Nations Fail
ISIS: The State of Terror
ISIS: The State of Terror
The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism
The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism

The Encyclopaedia Judaica Dustica – Physical Copy

Last week, I had to do some research in a group for the last assignment for a course I’m taking this semester called “Jesus the Jew.” We spent the semester studying Jesus in the Jewish context he was born in, including society, government, religion, and politics. We also looked at the gospel narratives and examined what they said about Jesus, who the authors were, how they differed in their views of Jesus and talked about what that means in terms of early Christianity. It was all very fascinating and I’ll probably post some of my research here later, but for now I wanted to share this picture:

IMG_3185

This is a photo of a few volumes of the Encylopaedia Judaica from the City College of New York library. The dust on top was at least a quarter-inch thick. I can’t imagine anyone has opened these things in at least 10 years. The E.J. is available online in full as a free resource because it was originally published around 1916 (I think). The only reason we got physical copies was because we couldn’t connect to the school’s wifi. Not surprising. The school has been getting its internet system upgraded but I’ll probably get my MA before they finish that project.

The ABCs of Children’s Books Exhibit at the New York Public Library – 42nd Street/5th Ave

The ABC of it: why children's books matter

On the 6th of this month, my wife and I met up with friends of ours to check out an exhibit on children’s books at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. I love going to that library! Right now, it’s just a reference library, meaning you can’t check any books out to take home, though there’s a chance that could change soon. There are plans being made to move a lot of the reference works to a storage facility in New Jersey and open up the area that is now called “the stacks” to the public as an area with books that can be taken home, though these plans are meeting heavy opposition from scholars who have filed lawsuits to block the removal of reference materials from the site.

Lion Statue in front of 42nd Street New York Public Library

The Fifth Avenue library branch regularly shows exhibits with different themes. Last year, we went to see an exhibit on old Automat restaurants.  I think you’d call them restaurants anyway. The exhibit we saw this time was on children’s books.

DSCN2636

I wasn’t expecting much, but I was surprised by how well the exhibit was set up and the diversity of books on display.

Dick and Jane!
Dick and Jane!

DSCN2626

A Japanese Faerie Tale
A Japanese Faerie Tale

They had everything from traditional American textbooks to Hindu comic books to Japanese faerie tales.

Little Golden Books in a case shaped like a Giant Golden Box
Little Golden Books in a case shaped like a Giant Golden Box

A few of the books on display were books I remembered reading as a kid, like the Little Golden Books series. Most were older. Some were a lot newer, though, like the Harry Potter series. I’ve seen the movies and I’d like to read those books when I get a chance too. According to the display, Harry Potter books are the fastest selling of all time. My wife says it’s because the books appeal to kids, teens and adults, so the audience buying them is a lot bigger. Makes sense to me.

I’ve always been fascinated by books. I guess that’s a good thing, considering the field I chose to pursue in college. I just placed an order for 17 books for one master’s history class for this Fall semester. Woot woot! I have so many books I’ve run out of shelves to put them on. I’ve given away lots of books to charity in the past when my collection became too cumbersome to take with me when moving, but this time most of my books are history books or books on religion, politics, sociology and anthropology. In other words, they’re all books I’ll probably need in the future as a student and teacher. I suppose there are worse things to have too many of in your house!

Gallery of more photos from the children’s book exhibit:

Samskara: How To Bury An Un-Brahminical Brahmin

The following is a book review I had to write for a history course titled, “Traditional Civilizations of India.”  The book is fictional, but deals with issues that helped to explain and give a starting point for research into the Vedic religion of India.  Essentially, a very un-religious person dies in a very religious village, and no one knows quite what to do with him.  The book focuses on the conflict between religious obligations and temptation and how to navigate between the two to do what’s right.  In the end, it leads to a spiritual awakening for the main character, going out into the world and seeing first-hand how the people actually live, which is somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha.  I have no idea what my grade was for this paper, because it was turned in on the last day of class, but my final grade for the course was an A+.

 

Samskara book cover.

“Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance” (Murthy 3).  The central issue of the book Samskara, by U. R. Anantha Murthy, revolves around the death of a Brahmin who broke all the rules and flaunted it.  In Durvasapura, a village of supposedly orthodox Brahmin, Naranappa stood out as the exact opposite of everything a Brahmin should be.  He was wild, partied, socialized and had sexual encounters with people outside of his caste, destroyed holy relics and ate sacred fish.  In other words, he broke every taboo associated with being a Brahman.  His behavior while alive seriously complicated the means of disposing of his body after death for all those around him.  The fact that he died from plague and his corpse was a health hazard to the rest of the group seems to have gone completely unnoticed in this story.  The focus, instead, is on the spiritual ramifications of dealing with Naranappa’s remains.  Who is responsible for performing the rites, and should the rites be performed at all?

According to the leader of the Durvasapura Brahmin, Praneshacharya, the “Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning,” a deceased Brahmin’s funeral rites should be performed by a relative or, in the absence of a relative, any Brahmin will do (Murthy 5-6).  This would seem to solve the problem, since Naranappa has living relatives in the village.  Unfortunately, he managed to alienate them all before dying.  Naranappa and Garuda shared a common ancestor, but Garuda had quarreled with Naranappa’s father over ownership of an orchard.  When Naranappa’s father died, Garuda attempted to gain possession of the orchard by receiving a ruling in his favor from a guru.  Naranappa ignored the ruling and, according to Garuda, they swore they’d have nothing to do with each other for many generations after that.  Lakshmana, Naranappa’s other relative, is married to the sister of Naranappa’s deceased wife.  Lakshmana argues that Naranappa’s abandonment of the woman, and her subsequent insanity and death are things that he just cannot condone (Murthy 7).  So, there are no relatives willing to perform the funeral rites.  This causes the responsibility to shift to the Brahmin community as a whole.

Rather than create an easy opportunity to get Naranappa’s funeral rites done, this does nothing to solve the problem.  Naranappa’s behavior has caused him to become polluted in the eyes of the Brahmin.  Having anything to do with him would cause them to become polluted and lower their social and spiritual standing in society.  According to Jonathan Haidt:

Hinduism very explicitly places all creatures onto a vertical dimension, running from the gods above, to the demons below.  People rise and fall on this vertical dimension based on the degree to which they behave like gods or demons in this life. [1]

For high caste Hindus, proper behavior is regulated by The Laws of Manu.  It tells them how to avoid becoming polluted and part of avoiding pollution is avoiding people who are lower on the vertical dimension, those who are impure.  This is made evident at the very beginning of Samskara, when Praneshacharya mentally debates whether or not to answer the door for Chandri, since even speaking to her would pollute him and he’d have to wash again before dinner (Murthy 2).  If speaking to someone from a lesser caste causes pollution, then certainly handling the dead body of a Brahmin who spit in the eye of Brahminism would be excessively polluting.

The Brahmin in Durvasapura are aware of the risks of pollution involved with performing funeral rites for Naranappa, and rather than take on that burden, they are intent on finding a way to avoid it, even at the cost of slightly tarnishing their Brahminism.  Obviously, performing the funeral rites would be the greater evil, and the more polluting option.  With that in mind, one of the Brahmin, Dasa, proposes that they ask the Bramin of Parijatapura to perform the funeral rites, on the grounds that they were friends with Naranappa and shared meals together (Murthy 12-13).  This is important, because a person wouldn’t eat meals with someone that they consider polluting.  Unfortunately for the Durvasapura Brahmin, the Parijatapura Brahmin understand the precariousness of their social standing and are unwilling to perform the rites.  Praneshacharya says that “friendship is as strong a bond as blood,” but obviously the fear of pollution is the stronger force in society (Murthy 13).

With Naranappa’s body still lying unattended and no one volunteering to take responsibility for the funeral rites, the question of his status as a Brahmin is raised, perhaps in the hopes of pushing him off onto a lower caste.  If Naranappa were declared to not be a Brahman, then it wouldn’t be required that a Brahmin perform his rites.  Naranappa managed to break all the rules.  He drank liquor, ate meat, socialized with Muslims, engaged in sexual relations with low caste women and destroyed sacred objects and animals.  He completely threw out the concept of purity and pollution and even made remarks like, “If I were still a Brahmin…,” that indicate he clearly considered himself to be outside of the Brahmin caste (Murthy 23).  But, was it enough to remove him from the caste system in the eyes of the greater Indian community?  There is some social mobility in the caste system, in moving from one to the other, but is it possible to be removed from the Brahmin caste posthumously?  According to Praneshacharya:

…he may have rejected brahminhood, but brahminhood never left him.  No one ever excommunicated him officially.  He didn’t die an outcaste; so he remains a brahmin in his death.  Only another brahmin has any right to touch his body. (Murthy 9)

So, this brings things back around to the original problem.  Naranappa died a Brahmin and must be given rites as a Brahmin, but because he’s extremely polluted, no one wants to perform them.

Despite the fact that Praneshacharya is a Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning, he is unable to come to a conclusion regarding the disposal of Naranappa’s body, which is all the while rotting and literally polluting the entire agrahara with plague and a horrible stench.  Without debating the reasons for Praneshacharya’s inability to make a decision, there are several options that were available to him, most of which he was aware of, and all of which he should have been aware of.

The first solution is one that is introduced at the beginning of the story, when the Brahmin first gather to discuss the funeral rites.  Praneshacharya says:

Garuda said: an oath stands between him and Naranappa.  Yet the Books of Law have ways of absolving such oaths—you can perform a rite of absolution, give away a cow, make a pilgrimage.  But this is an expensive matter and I’ve no right to ask anyone to spend his money. (Murthy 9)

Immediately after saying this, Chandri offered up the gold that Naranappa had given her to pay for the expenses of the funeral rites.  Why did Praneshacharya not state that the gold should be used to absolve the oath, as well as perform the rite?  It would have remedied the situation immediately, and since the gold was freely given for that express purpose, then there was no harm in it, only inconvenience to Garuda.  Would it have been polluting?  Perhaps, but on the other hand, if Praneshacharya had given the advice, then Garuda could have rested easy in the knowledge that the best learned person in the community had told him it was right.

Another option available to Praneshacharya would have been to take the gold and perform the rites himself.  As the head of the community, Praneshacharya is ultimately responsible for the well-being of all the agrahara’s inhabitants.  To leave a rotting corpse lying unattended, spreading disease, while people bicker over fine points of doctrine is wholly irresponsible.  Despite the pollution, he should have made the sacrifice for the greater good of the community.  To balance out the pollution of performing the rites, he would have restored the normal flow of life in the agrahara, including the worship.  Surely that counts as good.  Additionally, he could have donated the rest of the gold to a temple.

Outside the context of the story, the translator indicates in the afterword that as a Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning the answer to the problem should have been obvious to Praneshacharya.  The translator says that the answer to the problem is found in a text called the Dharmasindhu.  He says that “certain simple ritual modifications and offerings would have solved the problem, as the guru of Dharmasthala clearly suggests” (Murthy 145).  In the story, Chandri’s gold made the funds that would likely be necessary for such ritual modifications available to Praneshacharya.  Why didn’t he know about the Dharmasindhu?  Well, the most likely answer is that Samskara wouldn’t have made for a very good story if he had known how to solve the problem before it began.  Besides, the real conflict of Samskara isn’t so much about the inability to find a solution to performing the funeral rites for Naranappa as it is about a conflict between traditional religion and modern life, but that is not the topic of this essay.

In the sort of situation presented by the story, some amount of pollution was unavoidable.  Praneshacharya should have realized this right from the start, and instead of trying to find a perfect way to solve the problem, he should instead have been looking for the least polluting solution.  Resolving the problem would have saved the agrahara from the stench and complete disruption of their lives.  It’s hard to believe that none of the villagers knew the danger of having a plague-killed corpse sitting in their village.  Removing the body would have likely saved the lives of some of the brahmin as well.  Taken together with providing the brahmin a way to resume their prayers, the pollution caused by performing the funeral rites would likely have been balanced out, whether the person that performed them was Praneshacharya or another brahmin.


[1] J. Haidt’s work is on a single web page.  As such, no page numbers are available.

Works Cited

Haidt, Jonathan. “Elevation and the positive psychology of morality.” 10 May 2001. University of Virginia: Faculty. Web. 13 November 2011.
Murthy, U.R. Anantha. Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.